Smuggler Sentenced For Role in Deadly Tractor-Trailer Case

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The last member of a human smuggling ring that was implicated in the 2003 deaths of over a dozen illegal immigrants has been sentenced to 14 years in prison for his role in the incident.

Octavio Torres-Ortega admitted his guilt, and apologized for having participated in the attempted transport of over 70 illegal immigrants in a tractor-trailer. They immigrants were found at a truck stop in Victoria, Texas, about 100 miles southwest of Houston, after the trailer was abandoned by the truck driver. Seventeen people were found dead inside the trailer, and two more subsequently died. All of the deaths were due to overheating, suffocation and dehydration. According to officials, temperatures inside the trailer reached 173 degrees Fahrenheit; some of the immigrants who survived said that they removed their clothing and punched holes in the side of the truck to try to gain relief from the heat. They even kicked out a signal light in order to attract attention.

Torres-Ortega agreed to a plea deal in which he was sentenced on one count of conspiring to harbor and transport illegal immigrants in the United States resulting in death and serious bodily injury—and in which 57 other similar charges were dropped.

The Mexican citizen had originally fled to Mexico to avoid prosecution, but was captured in August 2003. Charges against him were dropped by a Mexican judge, but he was re-arrested in 2006 and extradited back to the United States in October 2007.

There were 13 other people who were charged in the case; they have all been convicted, pleaded guilty or had the charges against them dismissed. Among them was the driver of the truck, Tyrone Williams, who was sentenced to life in prison in January 2007. He was the only suspect against whom prosecutors had sought the death penalty.

In Torres-Ortega’s case, prosecutor Daniel Rodriguez had asked for a sentence of 17 years, saying that the number of deaths caused by the smuggling operation, and the fact that Torres-Ortega ran a human trafficking organization in Mexico, justified the maximum sentence.

The tractor-trailer trip originated in the south Texas city of Harlingen, and was headed for Houston. Dozens of immigrants were packed inside the trailer. They included people from Mexico, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador.

 

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